Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Class unity, not racial or gender division.

Hubert Harrison "The Father of Harlem Radicalism"
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I have written at length on my feelings about much of what we call “the left” in the US. I am not talking about Elizabeth Warren when I use this term, a left wing big business politician in the Democratic Party, but those thousands of us that consider ourselves socialists or have belonged to one socialist or anti-capitalist organization or another over the years. I am not talking about the left current within the workers’ movement or the US working class in general either as there is no such thing as the left I am talking about, socialists for example, have failed to build one. 

I return to this subject as I just read a revue by Sean Ahern, of Theodore W. Allen’s book The Invention of the White Race. I have not read Allen’s book although I have heard of it. I have acquired some interest in it thanks to Jeffrey B Perry. Perry is a former union activist and history professor who is very familiar with the work and the subject matter. He made available to me a presentation he did on the subject of this book that I have not yet seen in its entirety and you can view it here.  The presentation begins with Hubert Harrison, a black radical and former member of the Socialist Party who lived at the end of the 19th and early 20th. century. Perry has also written a book about Hubert Harrison that I intend to read.  See here.

I do not intend to delve much further in to the book but I do want to comment on this issue of whiteness which is a description of skin tone that is used to describe a race of people. When I came to the US 41 years ago, I recall being asked by some US official what my race was. I answered that I was “English”. He corrected me informing me that I was “White”.  I remember a South Indian guy telling me that he was told he was black rather than Asian.  South Indians are often pretty dark skinned. Well this was interesting. I had never associated my color with my racial background. After all, Poles are white. I am not Polish. The Scots are white and I am not Scottish either, nor Finnish.

Even in my most apolitical period I was sure of one thing, I was working class. But in the US, whether you are black or white or somewhere in between means everything. If one wants to escape this issue one can’t.  I read something not long ago by a writer who suggested racism was in white people’s genes and being white, that includes me. Many young white middle class left types even refer to “whiteness” as a racial thing although they generally use it derisively when applied to white workers not themselves or their privileged kin.

But I never defined my ethnicity by whiteness. Just last week, reports about a study from Emory University find that “white people” calling someone black instead of African American implies that the white person is portraying the person in a more negative light. It just never stops this effort to prove there is a white race of people with an inherent abhorrence of non-whites and racism cannot be eradicated if it is innate.

No thinking white worker if they were to be honest, could deny that having white skin in US society, or being male, doesn’t have certain advantages over women or black folks for example. This may not always be the case but it is generally and has been so historically. Having an English accent usually gives me an advantage over white Americans, it has gotten me off light with cops. I lived and worked in a black working class community for many years and an English accent was something that generally eased possible tension and racial feelings among black folks at times. I worked in some real tough areas but always found that the young unemployed black men that would hang out in the neighborhood were always inquisitive and asked me where I was from when we spoke.  We are naturally inquisitive creatures. These experiences lead me to believe that it is the historical social role-played by white Americans not so much the color of their skin.

And that social role has been possible through identifying whiteness as our race which links us to the white ruling class in a pretty strong way. Once that decision is made then white capitalists, and white workers, all white people, are ethnically the same------racism is inherent in us. Both Perry and the book review that I link to here after a short excerpt, explain how Allen shows that this creation of a white race was imposed from without by the white ruling class from the earliest days of US history since the European invasion. It has been the most successful divide and rule strategy used by the white capitalist class in the US.

As I pointed out in a piece I wrote earlier, due to class unity between blacks and whites in the Caribbean plantations, legislation aimed at undermining it was introduced.  Perry discusses this in depth in his presentation and points out that not only was there an ideological campaign to convince white workers their lot lie with their racial white brethren in the ruling class, it was also necessary to convey on white male workers privileges that blacks and other people of color were denied and that women were denied as well, after all, the white skinned ruling class was clearly in a different socioeconomic bracket.  People of color for example were denied rights as citizens, they could not testify against a white skinned person. The poor white was included in this privilege being a member of the "white race" as part of the strategy for maintaining the most brutal repression of the non white population and undermining unity between two exploited communities..

Of course, as I always explained to my co-workers during my 30 or so years in the union, racism (white skin privilege and the division it fosters) also harmed the material interests of the white worker. I always explained that wages and working conditions in the US South were worse due to racism because workers were divided, our organizations were weaker or non-existent and the white bosses were more powerful.

It has taken me a while to get to this point but I don’t have an editor so bear with me. I am in agreement with this analysis about the creation of a white race for the purpose of undermining class unity. It is basic common sense in a way. So accepting this, we have to have a way to deal with it. I feel that having this understanding enabled me to fight racism on the job and in the movement.  But organized labor’s hierarchy, dominated by white males, has completely failed to overcome this hurdle of white skin privilege and consequently has historically failed the US working class both white and people of color by placing this false race concept above class interests.

It is rare for me to use this term “white skin privilege” until now. The reason for this is that while the leaders of the labor movement have failed to address the issue, the white middle class and in particular the white middle class left and liberal thinkers have, and many of them use the term all the time.  In truth, the left in the US is overwhelmingly middle class in its culture and approach. The problem is that given their class privilege drenched in guilt, they use it in a way that often attacks the white worker for their failure to recognize it. I would say it’s like alcoholism and drug addiction.  Once you recognize you have it, you feel compelled to do something about it. The white worker does not know how to deal with the issue so they deny it. When people are attacked they often tend to dig their heals in.

So the white race argument also harms white workers. It has to be condemned and its grip on white working class consciousness broken. It is a trick, a successful and harmful class collaborationist trick. The white skinned ruling class in this country does not want a race war; it wants above all to maintain a stable enough situation for profit making. But in a period of capitalist decay and when workers move in to struggle to defend our interests, there is a powerful tendency to overcome these artificial barriers imposed from without.  The ruling class in this country will always have the race card in its pocket and will play it as a means to derail this process. The same applies to gender discrimination and sexism which is equally destructive to class unity and the struggle for a better world.  They are all divide and rule tactics.

In my opinion, a major difference in the present period from the past is that the ability of the US capitalist class to buy off the white workers when US capitalism is in decline is very limited and becoming impossible.  This creates more potential for working class unity and a generalized campaign of our own against the capitalist offensive. The US bourgeois cannot afford guns and butter in this period as we have stated on this blog many times, and never will again. In fact, even during the post World War Two era when US capitalism was at its height, it could never provide a secure and stable life for millions of its citizens.

Rather than using the term to deride the white working class, used properly and with knowledge of its historical context, the term “white skin privilege” has real meaning. My comments above with regard to the left, a force some would describe as the more conscious elements or even vanguard of the working class (both terms they would apply to themselves no doubt) are aimed at pointing the finger where it belongs, it is this element that has failed also to combat this false idea of a white race and the privilege it conveys and instead help unite workers along class lines. (The present trade union bureaucracy has long passed its shelf date and has shown itself incapable of doing so). My own personal view is that although some will come out of this left milieu, in the main it will not be from this “white radical” element that a new militant and revolutionary leadership capable of challenging the “white race” nonsense or the capitalist system, will arise, but from the mass movement of workers and youth that will come to the fore in response to the capitalist offensive.

In this quote below from Ahern’s review, the author describes how Allen makes this point, not deriding the revolutionary potential of the European working class, but challenging whether or not the socialist, anti-capitalist and other predominantly “white” radical movements can overcome their white racial identity problem:

“The intent of his reference to “paralyzed will” in the concluding paragraph cited above is not to disparage the revolutionary potential that inheres in the European- American sector of the proletariat, but only to free its putative leaders, the so called conscious element, from their “white” identity. The issue at stake is not whether or not the European-American worker can be radicalized, but whether the “white” radical can be.” Sean Ahern

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the book review by Sean Ahern with a link to it:

I ask indulgence for only one assumption, namely that while some people may desire to be masters, all persons are born equally unwilling and unsuited to be slaves.”

The Invention of the White Race (I, 1)


Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race (2 Vols., The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control and The Invention of the White Race, Volume 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America), has been recognized by increasing numbers of scholars and activists as a seminal work since it was first published by Verso Books in the 1990s. The second edition offers a number of entry points and is designed to attract a broader audience. It features an expanded index, an internal study guide, a selected bibliography and a biographical sketch of the author all prepared by Jeffrey B. Perry, Allen's literary executor and author of the acclaimed Hubert Harrison The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. The expanded index prepared by Perry was particularly helpful in writing this review.

The Invention of the White Race is a scrupulously documented, fairly argued, and profoundly radical history. It arrives at a propitious moment in the end game of the American Empire and will be of particular interest to educators, students and working people interested in learning the lessons of our past. It contains the root of a general theory of United States history and the basis for a revolution in US labor history and in social history. Students of African American history, political economy, Irish American history, gender studies and colonial history will find in Allen’s work much of interest to recommend.

For those considering the projected impact of demographic change in the 21st century, The Invention offers a lens through which to assess how the “white race” was invented and reinvented in the past and the ways in which ruling class-interests may seek to adjust, adapt or reinvent it in the present. After 300 years of functioning as a ruling class social control buffer, the US bourgeoisie will not, in this writer’s opinion, willingly abandon its tried and trusted guardian, the so called “white race.”

Genesis of the thesis

Allen’s analysis of the “white blindspot” was a critical first step that led him to develop his thesis on the invention of the “white race” as a bourgeois social control formation. His view of the history of class struggle in the U.S. was radically altered by his reading of W.E B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in the early1960's. Dubois described Black Reconstruction as a “normal working class movement, successful to an unusual degree, despite all disappointments and failures.” Its final defeat was due to “the race philosophy” of white supremacy, which made labor-unity or labor class-consciousness impossible.

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Raymond Sean Walters said...
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Gregory A. Butler said...
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